Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

Difference of Opinion

The Wall Street Journal published an article today about MI5, the British agency tasked with gathering domestic intelligence. (MI6 is the foreign intelligence division.)

The US, as you may recall, does not have a domestic intelligence agency. Our closest analogue is the FBI. The FBI is pretty much a traditional police force. It approaches its job from the perspective of "how do we find and capture criminals after they have committed a crime?" MI5 is more about terrorist prevention: "how do find terrorists before they act, so that we can prevent the attack entirely?"

The article touts MI5 as highly successful in preventing terrorist attacks. The last successful Islamic terrorist plot in the UK was 10 years ago, and MI5 has detected and stopped several since then.

Also emphasized is the stark difference in the scrutiny and oversight that the FBI receives, versus MI5. For example: MI5 doesn't need a warrant for a wiretaps or searches -- only the authorization of a cabinet official. Who can also authorize secret break-ins, which I'm thinking are illegal in the US. Parliament has no direct authority over MI5. MI5 agents seldom testify in court, and when they do, they do so behind a curtain, without disclosing their names. They're also selective about what information they will testify about in public, and present evidence in secret court sessions that neither the defense nor defense's counsel may be present for. ("Defendant's right to confront his accuser"? Forget it.)

There is an almost instinctive appeal to the "prevention" approach. Terrorism isn't very susceptible to the traditional after-the-fact approach; the highest profile attacks are all suicide runs, and it's perfectly obvious who the direct perpetrator was. You can still go after their support network, of course. But their incentives are very different from those of a bank robber or a car thief.

But there's also something ... creepy about "prevention". If you stop it before it happens, how do you know it was going to happen? Remember when Jose Padilla (aka Abdullah al-Muhajir, aka Ibrahim ... what a tangle of names he has) was arrested on suspicion of planning to set off a "dirty bomb"? There was -- andprobably still is -- more concern about his arrest and subsequent treatment than over the possibility that he might have built and detonated such a device.

I prefer it that way. I like to know who the bad guys are: I want them to be the terrorists and not the guys trying to protect me from the terrorists. I'd rather have cops who were often ineffectual, but who were not corrupt (not because they are incorruptible, but because the corrupt ones would be caught), than effective ones who could easily hide abusers and corrupt men within their ranks.

And this is why I would not trade our FBI for Britain's MI5. Happily for me, this is unlikely to be put to the test, as the most undesireable of MI5's powers are not merely illegal in this country, but unconstitutional. Even when US officials were looking at ways to emulate MI5's effectiveness, they had to give it up: it simply would not fly in US culture.

But this isn't really the point I wanted to make. This is:

Britain is a good country.

For all that I dislike -- in some cases, vehemently -- large portions of their political policy (not just domestic spyng, but restrictions on speech, laws to enforce niceness, medical policy, etc.), nothing I've heard about the place suggests the daily life for the vast majority of its citizens is difficult, harsh, or unpleasant. To the best of my knowledge, political dissidents are not hauled off to secret internment camps in the dark of the night. Citizens are not beaten for failure to wear the right clothing or pray to the correct deity. Their economy is not in ruins and tribes of armed men do not control the streets. Britain would not be my first choice of countries in which to live, but it's surely in the top five.

In a peculiar way, this gives me hope. Too often in politics, we look at what we're opposing as if it were a slippery slope: one step in the wrong direction, and we will slide inevitably into oblivion. Socialize medicine today, and tomorrow, Joe Stalin will be running America. Allow the CIA to spy on domestic terrorists, and in a year they'll be jailing political dissidents without trial. Make abortions illegal, and soon women will lose the right to vote. Loosen FDA restrictions now, and in a decade we'll be eating canned earthworms labeled as baked beans. Every battle is life-or-death, every step in the wrong direction spells certain disaster.

And I'm not saying that I want the FBI to operate under MI5-like restrictions, or that I necessarily think any of the above would be a good idea. It's important to fight for what you believe is right, whether little or big things are at stake.

But perhaps there's more tolerance in the system than we give it credit for. Maybe it won't be the end of the world, whether Bush or Kerry wins in November. For all the things that Nader, Bush, Kerry and Badanik disagree on, there's still a lot they all believe in. Democracy. Free markets. Freedom of speech and religion. Equality. Yes, they support those goals in varying ways and to varying levels, but none of them are proposing that slavery be legalized, or a state-sponsored religion be enforced, or that the Internet should be shut down as a hotbed of political dissent.

Perhaps what we all have in common is enough to keep us going in more-or-less the right direction, even if we take some missteps.

Maybe choosing betwe Coke and Pepsi isn't so bad; at least neither one of those is cyanide.
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